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Science Hardware

Super-Sensors To Sense Big Bang Output 50

New super-sensitive microwave detectors from the National Institute of Standards and Technology may soon tackle the question of what happened immediately following the big bang. "The new experiment will begin approximately a year from now on the Chilean desert and will consist of placing a large array of powerful NIST sensors on a telescope mounted in a converted shipping container. The detectors will look for subtle fingerprints in the CMB [cosmic microwave background] from primordial gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time from the violent birth of the universe more than 13 billion years ago. Such waves are believed to have left a faint but unique imprint on the direction of the CMB's electric field, called the 'B-mode polarization.' These waves — never before confirmed through measurements — are potentially detectable today, if sensitive enough equipment is used."
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Super-Sensors To Sense Big Bang Output

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  • by Moryath ( 553296 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @03:01PM (#27819401)

    Well, they lay around in bed, smoked a few cigarettes, and then the next morning... at least, that's according to Eccentrica Gallumbits.

    Sadly, Zaphod is only number 2, having merely been described as the best bang since the big one.

    • by JoelTC ( 1546981 )
      Poor Zaphod, just tell him "Don't Panic" and everything will be alright.
    • I'd say that after the Big Bang, "the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move." -- Douglas Adams

  • Output? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @03:01PM (#27819403)

    If they could sense the input, I'd be more impressed. ;-)

    A little cosmology humor there for ya.

  • by Chees0rz ( 1194661 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @03:02PM (#27819417)
    How I met your Mother, duh
  • by HasselhoffThePaladin ( 1191269 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @03:05PM (#27819473)
    How sensitive, you ask?


    By contrast, the new NIST detectors are designed to measure not only temperature but also the polarization. The B-mode polarization signals may be more than a million times fainter than the temperature signals.

    ...the colors represent the tiny temperature fluctuations, as in a weather map. Red regions are warmer and blue regions are colder by about 0.0002 degrees.

    I might be missing something, but that sounds pretty impressive.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) *

      Maybe I'm thinking of gravity wave experiments, but didn't the researchers have issues with unforeseen field effects the last time they tried this measurement?

      • IANAP, so the only thing Wikipedia brought up was a cancelled telescope designed to detect B-mode polarization called Clover [], so you might be thinking of the gravity wave experiments.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by blueg3 ( 192743 )

      For what they're doing, it may well be very sensitive. Unless I'm doing my calculations wrong, though, it's not amazingly sensitive in the absolute sense -- 0.0002 degK is 2.32 eV. It's certainly reasonable to measure energies in the meV range. Alternately, the temperature of the CMB is a few Kelvin, so this is measuring fluctuations of roughly one part in ten thousand.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        You're talking about the temperature signals from the CMB though. The sensors are designed to detect the B-mode polarization signals, which are supposedly 1 millionth as strong, according to TFA.
      • Unless I'm doing my calculations wrong, though, it's not amazingly sensitive in the absolute sense -- 0.0002 degK is 2.32 eV.

        I think you multiplied instead of divided — 0.2 mK is equivalent to 17 neV. Much more impressive, but presumably doable.

    • I hear they're detectors are so sensitive that they will only be able to detect the sought-after Big Bang radiation if every microwave-oven on the planet is turned off for a good couple of hours. So, in other words, they'll never detect Big Bang radiation :P

  • ... everyone covered their ears!
    • Nope ears were covered in preparation FOR the big bang not after.
      Well for some definition of ears and some other less likely definition of before.
    • ... everyone covered their ears!

      nope. mum screamed. THEN everyone covered their ears!

  • Well, the summary is clear on the what - but if you're curious about the point of making the measurement in the first place (beyond because we can, etc.) - from TFA:

    If found, these waves would be the clearest evidence yet in support of the "inflation theory," which suggests that all of the currently observable universe expanded rapidly from a subatomic volume, leaving in its wake the telltale cosmic background of gravitational waves.

  • I figured this was "electric" (e-field) and "magnetic" (b-field), but Googling around so far has only left me more confused.
    • E- and B-modes (Score:5, Informative)

      by jpflip ( 670957 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @05:20PM (#27821541)

      The "E-modes" and "B-modes" referred to in the article aren't quite the same as electric and magnetic fields. Here's the basic story.

      Suppose you try to map the polarization of the microwave background across the sky. Each direction on the sky has some polarization magnitude and direction, which we can represent by a little headless arrows on the sky (headless because flipping the polarization 180 degrees doesn't change it). A map of the CMB polarization thus looks like a bunch of little line segments of varying sizes and orientations all across the sky.

      Now imagine looking at the pattern of polarization directions near some point on the sky. This arrangement of lines can be "curl-free" if the lines are oriented radially or circumferentially around the central point; this is called an "E-mode" pattern. The polarization pattern might instead have a curl component, which is called a "B-mode" pattern. another way of looking at it: an E-mode pattern looks locally the same when mirror-reversed, while a B-mode pattern does not. Any field on the sky can be written as the sum of an E-mode pattern and a B-mode pattern.

      This technicality is important because of how polarization is generated in the microwave background. It turns out that all kinds of relatively mundane processes can generate E-modes - they're still very interesting and informative, but we know they're there (and have even detected them). B-mode patterns are much more unusual - it turns out that normal CMB physics cannot generate large-scale B-modes. Inflation, however, generates a background of gravity waves in the early universe that produce a B-mode contribution to the CMB. This is incredibly tiny and difficult to detect, but it's a smoking gun for inflation.

  • It would be a lot more interesting to know what happened before the Big Bang.
  • I can't believe nobody's mentioned Terry Pratchett's Listening Monks yet! :P

  • So what? (Score:3, Funny)

    by bugeaterr ( 836984 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @04:54PM (#27821127)

    This only shows what happened in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.
    Which leaves PLENTY of room for God.
    He's awfully quick, you know. (As Mrs. God can attest to!)

  • by jpflip ( 670957 ) on Monday May 04, 2009 @04:59PM (#27821205)

    It's worth noting that more than one such telescope hopes to probe CMB polarization on a similar timescale. Caltech and JPL are leading the BICEP2 and SPIDER collaborations (also with NIST), which will also be deploying in a few months (the former at the South Pole, the latter on a high-flying balloon) to probe E-mode and B-mode CMB polarization. The Princeton experiment mentioned in this article isn't that different - it just apparently has better press!

  • Didn't it happen like really long ago or something? Then we must be in a giant fishbowl which echoes :-)

  • and noone can figure out what this strange figure is out in space...

    Here's what it looks like [] What the heck is that?!?
  • The big pop (Score:1, Troll)

    by caywen ( 942955 )
    The universe is the fluid in the pimple of God. I'm waiting for the Big Pop and the Big Wipe Off The Bathroom Mirror.
  • by PPH ( 736903 )

    a telescope mounted in a converted shipping container.

    ... that they'd see a lot more if they took the telescope out of the shipping container.

  • How can this magic microwave thingie detect what clearly didn't happen? According to the devil-worshiping scientists, this "big bang" occurred billions of years before the universe existed, so we know it never happened. If it never happened, how can we possibly detect anything emanating from it? This is obviously yet another hoax designed to lead people away from GAWD. [/christianstrawman]

In less than a century, computers will be making substantial progress on ... the overriding problem of war and peace. -- James Slagle